Guatemala (land of the trees Maya-Toltec) is located in Central America just below Mexico on the Pacific side. The terrain is mountainous with tropical areas along the coast and in North Guatemala. Today in Guatemala the translation work is nearing completion. Many have available to them a New Testament in their language. Yet the message of God’s love may not be reaching everyone since the Mayan people are an oral culture. The written Word of God does not communicate the message that it is supposed to. Thus, work continues in bringing God’s Word to the Guatemalan people through films and recordings as well as literacy work.
The local Guatemalan currency is the Quetzal.
Dollars can be exchanged in many places throughout Guatemala. However, it is unwise to carry large amounts of cash in light of the theft concerns. ATMs are readily available, but exercise caution when you are withdrawing cash. Also, it is a good idea to let your bank know in advance that you will be using your debit card in Guatemala, and check the withdrawal limits.
Most expenses will be paid in Quetzals (cash), a few in Dollars (cash). ATMs are available if the volunteer wishes to use them. Traveler’s checks are not recommended. Credit cards are limited in use in Sololá. Credit cards can be used at some restaurants and some stores.
ATMs are available in most urban areas. ATMs may not always be practical to use because of withdrawal limits or location. ATMs are not found at some work sites. Each individual volunteer may chose whether or not to use an ATM to receive some of their cash.
You will need a valid and up-to-date passport to travel into Guatemala. Make a photocopy of your passport and put it in another area of your luggage. When in Sololá you should simply carry your photocopy and leave your passport in a safe place. Your driver’s license can be used as identification as well. (A US license is sufficient ID to get a US passport for individuals older than 18. Minors must have both parents present in order to apply for a passport.) Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your return date and that you have several blank pages in it.
A passport is all that is required upon arrival to receive a free tourist visa for up to three months. At three months, one may receive an extension for another 90 days. For visits of more than 180 days, it is necessary to leave the country for 72 hours and then reenter.
The most important health advice is to be careful with hygiene and with what you eat and drink. Do not eat foods that have not been cooked thoroughly. Avoid fruit unless it can be peeled, and eat raw vegetables only if they have been cleaned with a mild bleach solution. Be careful about foods from street venders or other places where the cleanliness is in doubt.
Drink water only if it is bottled (Agua Salvavidas is a safe brand), boiled, or otherwise purified. All Coca-Cola and Pepsi products are safe, as well as many products from local soft drink manufacturers. When you order a soft drink, you most likely will be given a tissue to clean the bottle.
Check the CDC Web site for information about immunizations and prophylaxes.
Extensive medical care is available in Guatemala City, but may be limited elsewhere. Public hospitals frequently have shortages of basic medicines and equipment. Also, medical facilities in Guatemala expect payment for service at the time of treatment. You will need to be able to pay your bill and work out reimbursement from your medical insurance later.
Evacuation insurance is required. The recommended companies are listed on the Evacuation Insurance page under the "Travel" section.
Check with airlines for policies on regular and overweight baggage. They will vary. Typically non-American lines (those based in Latin American or in countries other than the USA) have less baggage allowance. Remember to re-confirm your flights three days ahead of your departure date. Always hand-carry with you your copies of important documents including Passports. NEVER put these in checked baggage! Be careful with your laptop computer at the airport as some people have been stealing them as you are occupied getting through the metal detectors/x-rays.
When you get off the plane, follow the rest of the crowd to the station where you get your passport stamped (migracion). You will be given a 90 day tourist visa. Make sure you get your passport stamped to avoid problems when you leave the country later.
After you claim your bags you may be directed to go to customs. Go where you are told or where the line has already formed. Most people are not required to pay customs charges after picking up their luggage from their flight. Remember, you are allowed to bring in personal items relative to the length of your stay in the country (you are not selling things). Don't worry about it. If you go through customs, you will load your bag onto a belt when it is your turn and it will run it through an x-ray. They will probably not look through everything. (Only open the bags they ask you to open if they do look).
There is a bank teller window in the area where you wait for your luggage to exchange currency. You may change money at this time for your own personal use. It's a good idea to carry small U.S. dollar bills to pay porters.
After you finish with customs you will be able to leave and meet with the people who have come to get you. You are permitted to take the baggage cart outside. Porters will want to help you.
If your luggage does not arrive, see the representative for the airlines and make a report.
Life in Country
Guatemala is known as the Land of Eternal Spring. Yet, the climate in Guatemala can vary greatly. It is mainly influenced by altitude. In the tropical areas it is hot and humid year round. After living in Puerto Barrios for 10 years, we joke that it is the Land of Infernal Summer. Most of the major cities and the typical travel locations for Wycliffe Associates teams (except for Honduras) are in the highlands, where it can be quite cool. Packing a few warm things is suggested.
Even though in places like Sololá, Antigua or Guatemala City the climate is pleasant, you may need lightweight sweaters and jackets especially for evenings and mornings. Most people find that dressing in layers is convenient. The day can start off cold and in the middle of the day get hot before getting cold again as soon as the sun begins to set. There is a rainy season and a dry season in the mountains. Most rain falls between May and October. Rain can come hard with thunder and lightning or can fall softly all day long.
Men normally don't wear shorts, although they are seen among the tourists, and there will be times when they are appropriate. Young girls and boys can and do wear shorts. In Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, Antigua and other major urban areas, even Sololá, slacks or jeans are popular and acceptable for women to wear.
In villages, women usually wear mid-calf length skirts and dresses. In some parts of the country (particularly upcountry villages) shorts and even slacks are completely out of order.
Footwear: What is appropriate for the project? Comfortable boots, shoes or sandals are recommended for walking on cobblestone.
Of course, you may want to bring appropriate attire for the beach or swimming pool.
There are places for doing laundry. In Sololá, volunteers may send clothes to our house to be washed.
Second-hand stores (in Sololá and some other locations) allow the volunteer to make inexpensive purchases if they have forgotten something. For example, one volunteer purchased a jacket for $5.00.
For short-term volunteers, you will most likely be staying in a hotel. Hotels will have hot water, wireless, a restaurant, some snacks, and a TV in Sololá.
If you are going to Guatemala for long-term service, such as teachers for Christian Academy of Guatemala, housing will be covered in another document that will be sent to you when you are making plans to come.
Current and Voltage
Electricity is 110 volts and uses the same plug pattern as US/Canada. Beware: there may be fluctuations in current that can cause damage to things like computers. It is advised to bring some kind of surge protector for computers.
Good communication is available in Guatemala City, including wireless Internet access in many locations. However, be cautious about using laptops in public areas, as thieves may be watching for them. There are fewer public phones as the use of cell phones increases. Though, there are businesses that rent phones for local/domestic calls by the minute. Cell phones are relatively cheap and can be used for overseas calls. SIM cards can be purchased here if you have an UNLOCKED phone that uses them. Check with your server (or previous server) in the US about your phone's ability and compatibility with SIM cards overseas.
Security should be taken seriously in Guatemala. Although the majority of visitors will not have a problem, crime does exist, and occasionally foreigners are victims of it. Guatemala has a difficult history—a peace accord in 1996 ended 36 years of armed conflict. The effects of that conflict linger, however. Social institutions are still being rebuilt, a large portion of the population is impoverished, and weapons are easily available. Crime often turns violent.
When traveling in Guatemala, be extra careful about displaying cash, electronics, purses, computers, cell phones, or other valuables. Keep your belongings close to you and under a watchful eye. Do not carry things that you do not need. It is wise not to take clothes, electronics, computers, cameras, or other items that would make you appear affluent and could attract thieves. If you need some of these things, consider how you might pack them to make them less visible to strangers. Be aware of people and events around you. If something does not look right, avoid the situation if possible. If confronted, however, do not resist, as this could make the situation worse.
It is best to avoid traveling at night, even in a private vehicle, both because of crime and traffic accidents. Road rules are taken lightly in Guatemala. Avoid traveling alone, especially to remote locations, even in the daytime. Ask your host for advice and follow it carefully. For more guidelines and information, check the U.S. State Department Website.
There are thousands of tourists from all over the world in Guatemala on any given day, and most of them return home without having had any problems here. Probably the main risk for you will be becoming a crime victim in Guatemala City (and also, but slightly less risk in popular tourist destinations). While Guatemala City is probably no more dangerous than any other big city, even in the U.S., your North American appearance makes you a little more of a target to some people. It is assumed that all North Americans are rich.
As in any big city, there are areas it is best to avoid or take extra precautions when traveling through. Ask fellow missionaries for details on which areas tend to be most dangerous. If you have to enter these areas, study the map first, know where you are going, go in the daylight hours, keep your doors locked and windows rolled up, avoid stopping. Park in a guarded lot and use your "club"/alarm system. If you have to park on the street, don't sit in your car while waiting for someone. It is one of the most frequent situations in which car-jacking occurs. Don't stop at isolated places along the road. People have had their cars stolen at such places. In general, it is not wise to pick up strangers asking for rides, or to stop to help someone. People have been attacked and robbed by persons faking the need for help or a ride.
Don't carry a purse if you can avoid it. Put your money in several locations (not all in one pocket). Put your wallet in your front pocket. If you are "mugged" don't resist, it's not worth your life. Kidnapping happens here to rich Guatemalans as well as to North Americans. Make sure your kids know to stay away from strangers. Keep them close to you in all public places.
For some time rumors have been circulating in parts of Latin America (including Guatemala) that North Americans kidnap children in order to use their body parts in surgery to save the lives of their own children. Of course, for those who believe these rumors it is a highly-charged emotional issue. Not too long ago a North American woman was beaten (almost to death) in a Mayan village after talking to children and taking photos of them.